Lee's Emergence Key for Cats, a Lesson for Labissiere

Marcus Lee bided his time through three seasons, standing aside as his fellow Kentucky big men – future lottery picks, almost all of them – starred.

He had his moments, to be sure, but Lee spent most of his time as an understudy, quietly improving.

Lee is still improving, but he’s no longer doing it backstage.

“It’s great knowing that I have such a big impact on my team, vocally and on the court, which is a great feeling,” Lee said.

As a junior, Lee has evolved into one of UK’s most consistent performers, a fact he reinforced as the No. 5/4 Wildcats (9-1) dispatched visiting Arizona State (6-3) with a dominant second half, 72-58. Lee had 14 points and a team-high seven rebounds on Saturday.

“He’s a seasoned player with experience playing in big games,” Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley said. “He has obviously the physical tools that you look for: his mobility and his motor and how he plays. He can finish and he’s going to defense around the basket.”

Hurley surely had the five shots Lee blocked on his mind when he said that. The springy Antioch, Calif., native now has that many blocks – his career high – in back-to-back games, hearkening back to his high-school days. Lee averaged 9.1 blocks in his final season before coming to Lexington to play for John Calipari.

“That’s something that I always have behind me and I can keep in my head,” Lee said. “So seeing something like that, it kind of brings me toward that I’m going back to my old ways.”

Lee’s emergence has been a continual theme in 2015-16.

Not only is he averaging career highs in nearly every category, Lee is also approaching his point total from all of last season just 10 games. He has scored in double figures six times after doing so just three times in his first two years.

Calipari explains that in simple terms.

“He's more confident,” Calipari said. “There's nothing that I say that rattles him or Alex (Poythress). Like, I'm on those two as much as I'm on the other guys, but they look at me and they say, ‘I've got you,’ and it has no effect what I say.”

That wasn’t an easy lesson for Lee to learn.

“That’s a huge thing,” Lee said. “And that’s the one thing you gotta learn when you come here. Cal, he just screams because he likes to scream. But you kind of gotta take the screaming out of what he’s saying and actually listen to what he’s saying. Then you’ll figure it out.”

Skal Labissiere is right in the middle of that learning process.

The talent of the 6-foot-11 freshman is beyond question, but Labissiere is averaging 4.5 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.8 fouls in his last four games after fouling out in 13 scoreless minutes against ASU. Calipari admitted to be “somewhat” worried about Labissiere’s confidence, but only in the short term.

“To do what these kids want to do, this is all a great thing that he's got to work through, and it's the first time in his life,” Calipari said. “You understand he came from Haiti. He played basketball for a year and a half and then he played church league for two years. He's never been through any of this. This is all new to him.”

Lee is helping reinforce that message.

“That it’s normal,” Lee said when asked what advice he gives to Labissiere. “That’s kind of what he has to realize, is that we’re all going through this. Especially since it’s Skal, we’re pushing him toward such a high standard that if he’s anything short from that then he’s getting yelled at. That’s what he doesn’t realize yet, is that he has to go at everything so hard and that’s what we’re just teaching.”

Physicality has been Labissiere’s biggest issue. Stronger, more experienced opponents have taken advantage when Labissiere has gotten out of his stance. The result has been fouls and easy baskets for the opposition.

Lee can relate to that struggle.

“Toughness is something that you have to learn,” Lee said. “I know exactly what he’s going through. I was 180 (pounds) coming into college.”

Lee faced a humbling similar to the one Labissiere is going through, but he wasn’t counted on nearly as much as Labissiere is. Lee is still confident his teammates will come out on the other side a better player.

“That happens to freshmen,” Lee said. “You come with a huge head. I personally did. I know I did. And it’s kind of a reality check. Once you get the reality check and once you know that your team’s behind you, you’ll be fine.”